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What Future Female Leaders Need to Know About Sexism at Work

Julia Louis Dreyfous as Selina Meyer, Vice President of the United States in HBO's comedy Veep.Julia Louis Dreyfous as Selina Meyer, Vice President of the United States in HBO's comedy Veep.
Julia Louis Dreyfous as Selina Meyer, Vice President of the United States in HBO's comedy Veep.Lacey Terrell—HBO

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “How do you deal with sexism at work?” is written by Nicole Didda, chief communications officer at Skanska USA.

I was at a leadership conference recently, and the room was filled with business leaders, mostly women in their 50s and 60s who are enjoying successful and satisfying careers. There was one exception: a special guest who had graduated from Yale last spring. She stood up and shared how surprised she was listening to a room full of women sharing lessons learned, and not one mentioned discrimination. She and her friends spoke often about how they would enter the workforce at a “disadvantage,” and they were preparing themselves to operate within “dismissive cultures.” The audience, myself included, went silent.

How did we get here? How did we get to a place where the narrative of intolerance in the name of social justice has gotten so ugly that the message for young women is gloves up and prepare for battle when entering the workforce? What have I and all the women before me fought for? Though we’re far from achieving gender equality in the workplace, we’re certainly not beginning the fight for it, either. Sexual harassment at Uber, porn in the military, pay inequality, and the current political tide aside, we are way beyond gloves up in corporate America.

See also: What I Learned From My Boss Reading Me a Sexist Email on My First Day of Work

You should be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was. When I graduated in 1989 from Georgetown University, my teachers and my parents made it clear that I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard. I would hate to think young women don’t have that kind of encouragement and hope now. My gender never even occurred to me then. And even today, I think of myself as a leader, not a female leader. And for me, being a leader is about how we make others feel about their potential—it’s about bringing out the best in those around us.

As women, we cannot become the stories we hear or fear. Assuming you will be marginalized increases your chances of making it so. And it doesn’t give credit to all the men out in the workforce who “get it.” Have there been jerks along the way in my career? Hell yes, and some of those jerks were even women. I’ve seen too many women stand in their own way, from not raising their hand for a promotion they deserve to letting someone talk over them in a meeting. Often, the default thinking is: I’m not ready; that’s not in my comfort zone; I’ve never done that before, instead of, “Can I learn that?” I’ve told those I mentor to get comfortable being uncomfortable, especially those who do not feel empowered to speak up. When I ask, “What are you afraid of? What is the worst that could happen? Will they think you’re stupid? Unprepared?” The answers are almost always nothing and no.


For the women just getting started in their careers, my advice is pretty simple: Bring your amazing and flawed female self to work every day. And get out of your own way. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”